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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the Senate’s $65 Billion Broadband Infrastructure Bill

Muninetworks’ Sean Gonsalves cracks open and investigates the infrastructure bill.

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

August 16, 2021 — The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding access to reliable, high-speed internet service, passed in the U.S. Senate last week. The full text of the bill, posted on the website of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, appears to be identical to the draft of the bill detailed here by the law firm Keller & Heckman.

For those of us who favor local internet choice, the bill is a mixed bag filled with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The good

Of the $65 billion allocated in the bill, $42 billion of that is to fund the deployment of broadband networks in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country. The good part of that is the money will be sent to the States to be distributed as grants, which is better than handing it over to the Federal Communications Commission for another reverse auction. The FCC’s track record on reverse auctions is less than encouraging, and state governments are at least one step closer to local communities who have the best information on where broadband funding is needed.

In a nod to community broadband advocates and general common sense, the bill requires States to submit a “5-year action plan” as part of its initial proposal that “shall be informed by collaboration with local and regional entities.” It goes further in saying that those initial proposals should “describe the coordination with local governments, along with local and regional broadband planning processes,” in accordance with the NTIA’s “local coordination requirements.”

And the bill specifically says that when States award the grant money, they “may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments from eligibility for such grant funds.”

That alone is a major victory considering how much lobbying money was lavished on Congress by the cable and telco giants who for decades now have fought fiercely to prevent federal and state governments from making any funding available to cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, and local public agencies in order to protect themselves from competition.

Another good nugget contained in the bill is that after years of trying to prod the FCC into upgrading the minimum definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps to something more in line with current needs, the bill requires ISPs who receive funding to provide speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps.

And another Easter egg: a separate $2 billion pot of money will be added to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity program, which was first established with the Covid relief package administered by the NTIA and passed in December 2020. It also changes the timelines for that program, giving Tribes more time to develop solid plans for how to improve internet access.

A few other hidden gems

The bill allocates $2.75 billion to establish two NTIA administered programs to promote digital inclusion initiatives for communities that “lack the skills, technologies and support needed to take advantage of broadband connections.”

Broadband networks that use funds to build networks must offer at least one low-cost broadband service option for eligible subscribers.

The bill revives consumer broadband labels, originally established by the FCC in 2016. In 2017, as you may recall, the newly installed FCC chair Ajit Pai steered the agency to issue the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which not only overturned net neutrality rules, it also shelved the broadband nutrition label.

And, lastly, there’s one part of the bill that is good but with a huge caveat: it indefinitely extends the Emergency Broadband Benefit program by allocating $14.2 billion for a “sustainable” (and re-named) Affordability Connectivity Benefit that would provide a $30 per month voucher for eligible low-income families to use toward any internet service plan they choose.

The obvious caveat: it’s $20 less per month than what EBB is offering now and it relies on Congress’ willingness to continually fund the program, which, depending on which way the political wind is blowing and who is in office, it’s subject to be cut.

Another caveat: not only is this a big giveaway that will funnel millions of federal dollars into the coffers of the big monopoly providers, the EBB program is administered in such a way that makes it hard for new, small, and even mid-sized Internet Service Providers to participate or, in some cases, discourages them from making the effort. For a discussion on how poorly the EBB is administered see this episode of Connect This!

The bad

Not only does the bill not prioritize funding for municipal, cooperative, and non-profit networks, it exclusively prioritizes funding for “unserved” areas defined as areas that do not have access to a paltry 25/3 megabits per second service. It further defines “unserved service projects” as projects serving areas where not less than 80 percent of locations in the project area are unserved. (This is better than requiring 100 percent, which often makes projects unviable.)

Secondarily, the grant money can be used to fund projects in “underserved” areas, which is defined as areas that do not have access to broadband service delivering between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps. The bill further stipulates that in order to use the grant money for “underserved” areas, the State has to certify that all “unserved” locations have already been served.

This is bad because there aren’t many places outside of the most rural regions of the country that do not have access to 25/3 broadband service. And considering that large swaths of suburban and metropolitan areas would not qualify as “underserved” (lacking access to service offering between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps) because they are “served” by high-cost, underperforming monopoly providers, this bill can be seen as a way to ensure expanded broadband access is confined to mostly rural America, while all but ignoring the broadband challenges in non-rural parts of the country, which is where most Americans live.

In other words, there’s nothing in this bill that includes the more robust elements contained in the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act or what President Joe Biden’s initial American Jobs Plan called for: namely, a bill that addresses the affordability gap and also encourages competition in a way that favors community-centric solutions as an alternative to the corporate shareholder-focused monopoly model. There is very little in this that will help fix broken broadband markets.

As noted by Issie Lapowsky, Protocol’s chief correspondent, the bill “does away with some parts of President Biden’s initial proposal that were the least popular with the telecom industry, including more-aggressive requirements regarding network speed and provisions that would have targeted grant funding to municipal, government-run networks.”

She notes how the bill is “good news” for the telecom giants, quoting Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan and current policy adviser to New Street Research, on why Comcast is a big winner.

“They (Comcast) have a head start because they invested 10 years ago in trying to accomplish the same goal, which is trying to get the currently unconnected people online,” Levin said, citing Comcast’s low-cost Internet Essentials program. “By virtue of the staff, the relationships, the understanding of messaging and the importance of digital literacy, Comcast has skated to where the puck is going.”

The ugly

The bill requires the FCC to come up with rules within 2 years “to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service, taking into account the issues of technical and economic feasibility presented by that objective, including (1) preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin and (2) identifying necessary steps for the [FCC] to take to eliminate such discrimination.”

This is an ugly part of the bill, not because on the surface it will force the FCC to wrestle with “digital redlining,” but because it essentially means the Senate is kicking the can down the road two years to study something we already know is happening right now.

To further bring home the point, a recent study by the Brookings Institution, shows that people who live in cities are three times more likely to lack access to broadband than their counterparts in rural America. As the study notes:

“The digital gap between urban and rural parts of the country tends to garner the most attention. However, our analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data tells another story: The majority of digitally disconnected households live in metropolitan areas, and the gaps are especially large when comparing neighborhoods within the same place. Effectively, some residents live in digital poverty even as their neighbors thrive.

“Until metropolitan leaders and their state and federal partners can address the situation, we can expect a kind of digital segregation to persist across metropolitan America.”

All in all, while the bill does nothing to promote competition in a broken market dominated by monopoly providers, it’s not all bad. Or as Karl Bode wrote for Vice, “while the plan should help the up to 42 million Americans without broadband, it falls short in upending the rampant regional monopolization that has left 83 million Americans stuck with just one ISP.”

Or as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Ernesto Falcon tweeted in his bottom-line take-away, after the Senate vote:

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 11, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Rural

Christopher Ali’s New Book Dissects Failures of Rural Broadband Policy and Leadership

“Farm Fresh Broadband” explains the world of broadband policy and provides solutions to bridge the digital divide.

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WASHINGTON, September 24, 2021—In his most recent book, University of Virginia Professor Christopher Ali argues that the ongoing battle for improved connectivity is not only far from over, but also critically flawed.

“Farm Fresh Broadband” proposes a new approach to national rural broadband policy to narrow the rural-urban digital divide. In Ali’s view, the lack of coordinated, federal leadership and a failure to recognize the roles that local communities and municipalities need to play in the deployment of broadband has contributed to a lack of competition between carriers, and ultimately, higher costs to consumers.

Just two days after it was released, Ali sat down for a video interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark to discuss his story – and Ali’s recommendations that resulted from his journey.

Ali raises the question about How the $6 billion in federal funds allocated to broadband is spent annually? Based on his findings, he makes policy recommendations to democratize rural broadband policy architecture and re-model it after the historic efforts to bring telephony services and electricity to Americans across the country.

In particular, Ali discusses how, in one chapter of his book, he raises the provocative question about whether “Good Is the Enemy of Great: The Four Failures of Rural Broadband Policy.” In his telling, less money, lower speed, and poor-quality broadband mapping have all contributed to an approach that, in seeking “good enough,” federal policy has failed Rural America.

Ali, an associate professor at UVA’s Department of Media Studies and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is also the chair of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communications Association and the author of two books on localism in media, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and “Local News in a Digital World” (Tow Center for Digital Journalism, 2017)

“Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity” available at the MIT Press.

See Professor Ali’s recent Expert Opinion for Broadband Breakfast, “Christopher Ali: Is Broadband Like Getting Bran Flakes to the Home?

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Infrastructure

Topic 4 at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021: The Future of Shared Infrastructure

Topic 4 explores the past and future of the shared infrastructure model with more smart city deployments.

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Panelists for Topic 4 at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021

September 23, 2021 – In four days, Broadband Breakfast will kick off Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 at the Broadband Communities Summit on Monday, September 27, 2021.

This pathbreaking event brings the broadband infrastructure and financial services communities together to focus on the digital infrastructure and investment asset profile, including fiber, small cells, towers and data center assets required to support a 21st Century information economy.

This fourth session at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 – Topic 4 — is about the future of shared infrastructure. What will best practices look like for ownership models? How will the landscape shift as we continue to deploy 5G technologies across the country?

In particular, this session will consider how cellular towers were once proprietary, before carriers partnered with infrastructure owners. Will future wired and wireless deployments, including smart city projects, have any bearing upon the shared infrastructure model?

The conference will kick off at 1 p.m. ET / 12 Noon CT, and this fourth panel is scheduled to begin at 5:15 p.m. ET / 4:15 p.m. CT. Unlike other aspects of the Broadband Communities Summit, Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 will be available both IN PERSON and LIVE ONLINE.

The session will moderated by Mari Silbey, Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach for US Ignite, and Program Director for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, and includes, as panelists, Jonathan Adelstein, President & CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association; C. Earl Peek, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC; and Deborah Simpier, Co-founder and CEO, Althea Networks.

Visit Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 to register, and for the most up-to-date information about the mini-conference.

Panelists for Topic 4:

  • Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO, Wireless Industry Association
  • C. Earl Peek, CPA, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC
  • Deborah Simpler, Co-founder and CEO, Althea Networks
  • Mari Silbey (moderator),  Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach, US Ignite

Jonathan Adelstein has headed the Wireless Industry Association since 2012, representing the businesses that build, develop, own, and operate the nation’s wireless infrastructure. He is a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. He previously served 15 years on the U.S. Senate staff, culminating as a senior legislative advisor to Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

C. Earl Peek, CPA, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC, is a graduate from Wilberforce University in Ohio with a B.S, in Accounting, Summa Cum Laude and has an extensive background in public accounting, banking, commercial lending, and venture capital formation.  As an entrepreneur he ran his own business for eight years.  He founded and was greenlighted to be a Small Business Investment Company (SBIC). As Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Treasury he was a key voting member for deploying capital to ethnic minorities, minority depository institutions, community banks, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and other U.S. entities deploying nearly $6B in all states, cities, and more than 400 community banks. Mr. Peek, was an Assistant Vice-President /Director of the Bank Commercial Business Development with Industrial Bank and later he was Vice President in Commercial Banking with BB&T- both   in Washington, D.C.

Deborah Simpier is a small business veteran and has been active in the Pacific Northwest mesh networking and net neutrality scene for several years. Before she became co-founder and CEO, she was Althea’s first user.

Mari Silbey (moderator) is Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach for US Ignite, and Program Director for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, a $100 million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and a consortium of more than 30 wireless companies and associations. Mari has 20 years of experience in communications and technology. She has worked previously as a writer, analyst and consultant in the private sector, and as a journalist covering broadband and wireless infrastructure.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 will take place at the Broadband Communities Summit, and online, on Monday, September 27, 2021. 

Join the Broadband Breakfast Club and Register for the LIVE ONLINE version of Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 for the Member’s Rate of $149. First month of Broadband Breakfast Club Membership included.

REGISTER NOW

The Broadband Communities Summit is ​the ​leading ​conference ​on ​broadband ​technologies ​for ​communities. It will take place in Houston, Texas, from September 27 – September 30, 2021.

The Summit ​attracts ​broadband ​system ​operators, ​network ​builders ​and ​deployers ​of ​all ​kinds. ​Many ​of ​the ​country’s ​major ​property ​owners ​and ​real ​estate ​developers ​attend ​the ​Summit ​each ​year, ​along ​with ​independent ​telcos ​and ​cable ​companies, ​municipal ​and ​state ​officials, ​community ​leaders ​and ​economic ​development ​professionals. ​

For more information on the Summit, visit Broadband Communities, as well as 2021 Travel & Hotel Information.

Broadband Breakfast Club Members receive discount pricing on both the Broadband Communities Summit and Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021.

Join the Broadband Breakfast Club and Register for BOTH the Broadband Communities Summit and the IN-PERSON Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 for the  Member’s Rate of $349. First month of Broadband Breakfast Club Membership included.

REGISTER NOW

 

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 Sponsors:

Platinum Sponsors

Lit partners with municipal, county and other governmental entities, as well as a variety of private partners to deploy last-mile fiber optic network infrastructure. Residents and businesses connected to our networks will receive service from a local internet service provider that delivers a local brand and promise of great service and customer support.

 

Broadband.money makes finding and winning broadband grants easy. Sign up at today at broadband.money to line up for your share of $42 billion worth of broadband grant funding with a single application that unlocks grants in multiple states. Find underserved and unserved areas in your territory. Need match funding? No problem. Get on the fast track to funded with many sources of private money to choose from. Discover, apply, get match funding, and win grants. It’s really that simple. www.broadband.money

Gold Sponsors

BroadbandNow is a data aggregation company helping millions of consumers find and compare local internet options. BroadbandNow’s database of providers, the largest in the U.S., delivers the highest-value guides consisting of comprehensive plans, prices and ratings for thousands of internet service providers.

 

Render Networks provides an entirely new approach to fiber deployment. Utilizing innovative geographic information systems (GIS), mobile and automation technology, Render’s platform and data management enable network operators, engineers and builders to deliver quality networks without the need for manual, paper-based construction packs. Render uses real-time geospatial data to provide increased control and visibility, resulting in significant resource productivity across the delivery lifecycle.

Silver Sponsors

SiFi funds, builds and owns FiberCity™ networks for use by Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties as well as connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications.

 

Created by a group of Utah cities, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) is a community-owned fiber optic network that uses the Open Access model to promote competition by giving customers the freedom to choose which telecommunication services they want.

 

Positron Access specializes in carrier-grade telecommunications products that increase bandwidth delivered and the distance covered within both core access networks and residential buildings using existing wiring infrastructure. These include line powered digital subscriber line amplifiers/extenders that double the customer serving areas and increase the bandwidth, G.hn Gigabit Access Mulitplexors (GAM) that provide managed non-blocking symmetrical gigabit bandwidth to subscribers in multiple-dwelling units/multi-tenant units over copper pairs or coaxial cables; and bonded copper solutions for mobile backhaul, core transport, access and edge aggregation.

 

The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) has been on a mission over the last decade to forge partnerships and foster public policy to close the Digital Divide. This work has been strategically-focused, results-oriented, and people-centered. CETF is a leading proponent of the Digital Equity Bill of Rights

 

See Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment Archives for a complete list of prior DII events, including DII 2020

To inquire about Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021, contact drew@breakfast.media.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2020

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2020 took place online on August 10, 2020, from 1 p.m. ET to 5:30 p.m. ET. It was broadcast at the Broadband Communities Virtual Summit on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.

See Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment Archives for a complete list of prior DII events, including DII 2020

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Expert Opinion

Adrianne Furniss: Lifeline Needs A Lifeline

The FCC should hit the pause button on a current plan to zero out support for voice-only services.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society

In less than three months, nearly 800,000 low-income people who receive telephone subsidies through the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program will be negatively impacted by changes scheduled to go into effect at the Federal Communications Commission on December 1. That is one of the most troubling — and pressing — conclusions of an independent evaluation of the FCC’s Lifeline program conducted by Grant Thornton. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the FCC must act now to ensure people can retain essential communications services.

As of June 20, 2021, approximately 6.9 million subscribers were enrolled in the Lifeline program; most (approximately 94 percent) are enrolled in supported wireless plans. Voice service remains a desired service for both Lifeline subscribers and the general American consumer. Only 1 percent of surveyed American adults live in a home with neither fixed nor mobile voice service, and mobile-only voice subscribers comprise more than 60 percent of U.S. households.

In 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. For the first time, the FCC included broadband as a supported service in the program. Lifeline program rules allowed support for stand-alone mobile (think cell phone) or fixed broadband Internet access service (think home broadband service delivered over a wire), as well as bundles including fixed or mobile voice and broadband. The 2016 decision also set in motion a plan to zero-out support for voice-only services.

In its February 2021 report, Thornton found that the phase-down and ultimate phase-out of voice services by December 1, 2021 may negatively impact 797,454 Lifeline consumers (that’s over 10 percent of all Lifeline enrollees) who use voice-only services for fundamental needs. So that’s nearly 800,000 households that could face being disconnected from phone service this winter.

The FCC needs to change course and help more Americans keep connected to communications services that are essential to navigate the ongoing public health and economic crisis.

And it needs to act before December 1.

Most importantly, the FCC should act swiftly and hit the pause button on the 2016 plan to zero-out support for voice-only services. During the pandemic, the stakes are just too high for anyone to be disconnected from essential communications networks.

Then the FCC should launch a new effort to reform and further modernize the Lifeline program, informed by what we’ve witnessed during COVID, and the findings in Thornton’s and the FCC’s own recent review of the Lifeline program.

First, Lifeline needs to have foundational governance documents—such as strategic plans, performance objectives, and an integrated communications plan—to assist in the longitudinal success and guidance of the program.

Second, the FCC has to consider raising Lifeline’s monthly subsidy, $9.25, so it can make more meaningful services affordable for low-income families. Home-broadband prices (both for fixed and wireless service) remain disproportionately high when compared to the Lifeline program subsidy. The FCC should evaluate minimum service standards in relation to the average cost of wireless, wireline, and broadband data plans and determine if the subsidy will cover all, or even the majority of costs to provide Lifeline services.

Third, the FCC must adopt changes in the program so it better benefits the people it was created to connect.

  • The FCC should seek to understand the composition of Lifeline households and what services various members need (i.e., school-aged children, telecommuters, etc.). The minimum services supported by Lifeline should address the needs of the entire household.
  • Just 25 percent of the people eligible to participate in the Lifeline program actually enroll. The FCC must understand why and should consider ways to improve awareness of the Lifeline program. One idea is to partner with other federal benefit programs, and the state agencies that administer those programs, to not only increase outreach about Lifeline, but ideally to integrate Lifeline’s application processes into those program applications.
  • The FCC should adopt program rules that incorporate Lifeline consumer feedback to ensure the program works for the most vulnerable people in society.

Fourth, changes in the Lifeline program should encourage all telecommunications and broadband service providers to compete to serve low-income households in their service areas.

Finally, the FCC should also consider revising its measure of affordability of broadband for low-income consumers. Currently, the FCC considers “affordable service” as 2 percent of disposable income of those below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, the FCC should consider affordability in the context of a subscriber’s purchasing power in a geographic location and balanced with availability of services and choice of providers. The FCC should evaluate the pricing packages of voice and broadband services offered by Lifeline carriers and provide assurance that packages offered are in the reasonable standard of affordability for low-income consumers. And the FCC should institute a structured process to regularly review the Lifeline program’s pricing packages and incorporate measures of both the subsidy rate and service standards for similar programs (like the Emergency Broadband Benefit), income statistics of current consumers, and the percentage of Lifeline subscribers who pay out of pocket for services.

The commitment to connecting people with low incomes to essential communications services is not new. But the past 18 months have offered stark reminders of the importance of universal service. We need the FCC to act now to keep everyone connected. And we need the FCC to update the Lifeline program so everyone can rely on a basic level of connectivity no matter how much income they have.

Adrianne Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. She manages the institute’s staff and relationships with Benton experts, partners, and supporters in service to Benton’s mission and in consultation with Benton’s Trustees and Board of Directors. Previously, she held management positions at both non-profit and for-profit content creation companies, focused on program development, marketing, and distribution. This piece was originally published in the Benton Institute’s Digital Beat, and is reprinted with permission. © Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this publication – both internally and externally – is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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